Aquatic & Shoreline Plant Selection

Revised by Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University, 12/15. Originally prepared by Jack M. Whetstone, Extension Aquatic Specialist; D. Lamar Robinette, Extension Aquatic Specialist; and Bob Polomski, Extension Consumer Horticulturist, Clemson University. New 02/00. Images added 12/15.

HGIC 1709

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Aquatic plant selection is extremely important in the development of aquatic pools. You must have some degree of balance between plants and animals in your pool so that the water remains clear and major problems with maintenance and filters do not arise. Plants are very important in pools. They produce oxygen through photosynthesis, which allows maximum fish health. Plants also take up excess nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus wastes from the fish. In certain situations, ornamental pools can be stocked with only plants, with excellent results.

While numerous aquatic plants are available for water gardens, it is important to consider certain factors when selecting plants for a water garden. These factors include water depth, sunlight and how each species relates to its surroundings. You can obtain most plants from local garden centers or catalogs, but in many instances you can harvest wild plants for use in garden ponds with proper permission.

Four general types of plants are available for aquatic use:

  • Submerged plants, also called oxygenating plants.
  • Shallow water or bog plants, which grow along the water’s edge in natural environments.
  • Floating plants, which are rooted in the bottom substrate and have floating leaves and flowers.
  • True floating plants, which float on the surface of the water and whose roots are suspended in the water.

Two warnings should be heeded when selecting aquatic plants. Certain plants can become very invasive when planted under ideal conditions. These plants should be planted in pots, if they are used at all. Other plants are considered to be nuisance aquatic species.

The following plants are listed with South Carolina and federal agencies as illegal plants:

  • African oxygenweed (Lagarosiphon major)
  • Alligatorweed (Alternanthera philoxeroides)
  • Ambulia (Limnophila sessiliflora)
  • Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia)
  • Arrow-leaved monochoria (Monochoria hastata)
  • Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa)

Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa) is a noxious weed that has escaped from aquariums and crowds out native aquatic plants.
Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa) is a noxious weed that has escaped from aquariums and crowds out native aquatic plants.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Common reed (Phragmites communis)
  • Duck lettuce (Otellia alismoides)
  • Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum)
  • Exotic burreed (Sparganium erectum)
  • False pickerelweed (Monochoria vaginalis)
  • Giant salvinia (Salvinia auriculata, S. biloba, S. herzogii, S. molesta)

Giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) is a floating fern from Brazil that blocks out sunlight and decreases the oxygen content for fish and other aquatic animals.
Giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) is a floating fern from Brazil that blocks out sunlight and decreases the oxygen content for fish and other aquatic animals.
Stephen Compton, ©2015 Clemson Department of Plant Industry

  • Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata)
  • Mediterranean clone of caulerpa (Caulerpa taxifolia)
  • Melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
  • Miramar weed (Hygrophila polysperma)
  • Mosquito fern (Azolla pinnata)
  • Rooted water hyacinth (Eichhornia azurea)
  • Slender naiad (Najas minor)
  • Water chestnut (Trapa natans)
  • Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes)

A water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is growing with a colony of water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) in a pond. Millions of dollars are spent on water hyacinth eradication.
A water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is growing with a colony of water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) in a pond. Millions of dollars are spent on water hyacinth eradication.Stephen Compton, ©2015 Clemson Department of Plant Industry

  • Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)

Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is a free floating plant that grows so thick it can prevent navigation.
Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is a free floating plant that grows so thick it can prevent navigation.
Stephen Compton, ©2015, Clemson Department of Plant Industry

  • Water primrose (Ludwigia uruguayensis)
  • Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica)

Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatic) is a member of the morning glory family and crowds out native species.
Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatic) is a member of the morning glory family and crowds out native species.
Stephen Compton, ©2015, Clemson Department of Plant Industry

  • Wetland nightshade (Solanum tampicense)

The oxygenating plants are submerged plants, which many individuals often overlook. You can plant them directly into the bottom, in pots, or simply weigh them down on the bottom. These plants offer excellent fish habitat and are major sources of oxygen in pools.

Shallow water and bog plants work best in containers. These plants are rooted in the bottom, grow above the water surface and generally have very showy flowers. They include cannas, irises, pickerel rush and other flowering aquatic plants.

Most water gardens utilize floating plants, which are rooted in the bottom. Examples of these plants are tropical water lilies, hardy water lilies, watershields and lotus. Tropical lilies are usually the best flowering plants. Some are day-blooming while others are night-blooming. When designing your pool, take into account when you will be viewing the pool. Tropical lilies cannot withstand cold temperatures and will either have to be grown as annuals or brought indoors during winter in South Carolina. Hardy water lilies are native to the area, and a number of varieties are available. The blooms are not as dramatic as the tropical water lilies, but they survive outdoors during the winter. The lotus can be a beautiful plant, but since it is known to spread rapidly and become invasive in natural ponds and lakes, it should be planted in pots. Watershield is also invasive and should be planted in pots.

True floating plants are generally not recommended in pools in South Carolina. They are the most invasive weed group.

The following Aquatic plants are recommended for South Carolina*:

Submerged Aquatic Plants ("oxygenators" or oxygen-producing plants):

  • Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum)**
  • Gray fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana)**
  • Little floating heart (Nymphoides cordata)
  • Parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum)**
  • Tape grass or Eel grass (Vallisneria americana)
  • Underwater banana plant (Nymphoides aquatica)

Floating Plants (deep-rooted aquatic plants with surface-floating leaves):

  • Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)** and American lotus (Nelumbo lutea)**

The Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) has upright leaves, flowers, and seed pods that grow above the water’s surface.
The Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) has upright leaves, flowers, and seed pods that grow above the water’s surface.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Hardy water lilies (Nymphaea species and cultivars)

The leaves and flowers of hardy water lilies (Nymphaea species) float on top of the water.
The leaves and flowers of hardy water lilies (Nymphaea species) float on top of the water.
Joey Williamson, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Tropical water lilies (Nymphaea species and cultivars, such as N. capensis, N. colorataN. gigantea, N. lotus, and N. rubra)

Shoreline, Shallow Water or Bog Plants:

  • Bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata)
  • Club rush (Schoenoplectus lacustris subsp. tabernaemontani)
  • Common arrowhead or Duck potato (Sagittaria latifolia)
  • Corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’)
  • Creeping burhead (Echinodorus cordifolius)
  • Double arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia ‘Flore Pleno’)
  • Egyptian paper reed (Cyperus papyrus)

Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) was used by ancient Egyptians to make paper. It is best suited for wet areas that receive part shade.
Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) was used by ancient Egyptians to make paper. It is best suited for wet areas that receive part shade.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta)

The ‘Maui Gold’ elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Maui Gold’) has impressive golden chartreuse leaves with ivory stems.
The ‘Maui Gold’ elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Maui Gold’) has impressive golden chartreuse leaves with ivory stems.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Flamingo plant (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’)
  • Golden club (Orontium aquaticum)
  • Graceful cattail (Typha laxmannii)**

Cattails (Typha laxmannii) are native plants and are the most common plants found in wetland areas and ponds.
Cattails (Typha laxmannii) are native plants and are the most common plants found in wetland areas and ponds.
Joey Williamson, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Gray canna (Canna glauca)
  • Hardy white butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium)

Butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) has fragrant white blooms in midsummer.
Butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) has fragrant white blooms in midsummer.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale)**

Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) is a living fossil that is over one hundred million years old.
Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) is a living fossil that is over one hundred million years old.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Japanese iris (Iris ensata)
  • Japanese rush, Grassy-leaved sweet flag (Acorus gramineus)

The Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus) is easily grown in medium to wet soils and in full sun to part shade.
The Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus) is easily grown in medium to wet soils and in full sun to part shade.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Lavender musk (Mimulus ringens)
  • Lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula)
  • Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus)
  • Native water canna (Canna flaccida)
  • Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) and Giant pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata var. lancifolia)

Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) is a native plant that has tiny spike-like flowers that bloom in June.
Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) is a native plant that has tiny spike-like flowers that bloom in June.
Joey Williamson, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The pickerelweed  (Pontederia cordata) has purple flowers that bloom in late summer.
The pickerelweed  (Pontederia cordata) has purple flowers that bloom in late summer.
Joey Williamson, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Red-stemmed thalia (Thalia geniculata f. ruminoides)
  • Scarlet swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus)

The scarlet hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus) is a shrubby perennial that dies back in the winter and re-sprouts in the spring.
The scarlet hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus) is a shrubby perennial that dies back in the winter and re-sprouts in the spring.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Siberian iris (Iris siberica)

Siberian irises (Iris siberica) are one of the easiest irises to grow. It has graceful tall foliage and blooms in early spring.
Siberian irises (Iris siberica) are one of the easiest irises to grow. It has graceful tall foliage and blooms in early spring.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Southern swamp lily (Crinum americanum)
  • Spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana)

Spider lilies (Hymenocallis caroliniana) are tough low maintenance plants that loves moisture.
Spider lilies (Hymenocallis caroliniana) are tough low maintenance plants that loves moisture.
Joey Williamson, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Star sedge (Dichromena colorata)
  • Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
  • Sweet flag (Acorus calamus)
  • Thalia (Thalia dealbata)
  • Umbrella palm (Cyperus alternifolius)
  • Variegated spider lily (Hymenocallis caribaea ‘Variegata’)
  • Variegated striped rush (Baumea rubiginosa ‘Variegata’)
  • Variegated water grass (Glyceria maxima var. variegata)
  • Water arum (Peltandra virginica)
  • Water bamboo (Dulichium arundinaceum)
  • Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides)
  • Water mint (Mentha aquatica)
  • Water plantain  (Alisma plantago-aquatica)
  • Yellow water iris (Iris pseudoacorus)**

The yellow water iris (Iris pseudoacorus) is easily grown in wet areas from full sun to part shade.
The yellow water iris (Iris pseudoacorus) is easily grown in wet areas from full sun to part shade.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Zimbabwe umbrella plant (Cyperus involucratus)

*The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Nuisance Species Program helps regulate the importation of non-native aquatic species into the state and should be contacted if any plants not mentioned in this list are to be brought into the state.  Contact the Clemson Department of Plant Industry at 864-646-2140 or Chris Page at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at pagec@dnr.sc.gov.

**May be aggressive.

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